Photo: Greg McNevin

5 things the EU can do to help take Europe Beyond Coal

Last week Ireland became the latest EU country to promise it would move beyond coal in the coming years — the latest of a series of governments to announce such a move.

For Ireland, the decision was obvious – the country has just one coal-fired power plant which relies heavily on imported coal from South America, with 78% imported from Columbia alone. For other countries, like Germany and Poland, the inevitable transition to cleaner and sustainable generation and improved energy efficiency will be less straightforward.

Here, META takes a look at the five things health and environmental groups say the EU should do to help move Europe beyond coal.

1. Stop coal subsidies

Many countries still funnel public money to the owners of polluting coal plants through so-called “capacity payments”. This is extra money on top of the revenues made from electricity generation which is supposed to make sure there is enough electricity available to the grid at all times.

However, campaigners say the payment systems are often badly designed or even completely unnecessary. They argue these systems are simply being used as back-door subsidies to prolong the life of uncompetitive coal plants.

The EU is currently discussing new rules for how capacity payments will be allowed to work in the future. Joanna Fisowska of climate action group CAN-Europe says this is a perfect opportunity to make important changes:

“EU ministers can stop capacity mechanisms from subsidising coal plants and instead support the timely and orderly transition beyond coal and onto diversified, renewable, competitive and efficient energy sectors that will drive Europe forward, not backwards.”

2. Fix the EU’s Emission Trading System and push up the price of pollution

The Emission Trading System (ETS) was supposed to put an absolute cap on the amount of carbon pollution pumped out by European industry and energy suppliers. A decreasing number of pollution permits was handed out each year and any business that cuts its emissions more quickly could sell their excess permits to more polluting industry.

But the system doesn’t work.

Climate groups say that the market has been oversupplied with billions of ‘toxic tonnes’; surplus pollution permits accumulated over the years, pushing the price down and ensuring dirty business could always pick up pollution permits really cheaply.

A way forward has now been agreed but Dave Jones of climate think tank Sandbag says that further steps are required to meet Paris climate commitments and that it’s essential that the price of carbon pollution keeps rising:

“Recent reforms have already led the price of carbon to double since August last year; this is helping divert investment away from coal and towards renewable technology. The EU must now take the steps required to ensure prices keep rising.”

When revisions to the ETS were agreed in November last year, many were quick to point out that further action would be required to meet Paris commitments. Pressure group Carbon Market Watch called for national carbon pricing schemes to drive up the price of pollution.

3. Support the ‘Just Transition’

One of the greatest concerns for politicians that know they need to close coal plants and mines is the impact their decision will have on local communities. Some areas are currently heavily reliant on the jobs supplied by the coal industry.

Campaigners are aware of the importance of creating new, secure jobs to replace those tied to coal. A ‘just transition’ describes moving beyond fossil fuels while supporting affected communities.

The European Commission has recently launched a ‘Platform for Coal Regions in Transition’, which aims to “leave no region behind”.

However, NGOs warned that support for the move away from coal could be at risk due to the platform’s focus on unworkable and unproven “clean coal” technologies.

Speaking at the launch of the platform, WWF’s Senior Policy Officer Darek Urbaniak warned that the fund should not lead to money being thrown away on “unworkable technologies”:

“Instead, the EU Platform should support coal communities in a shift away from all fossil fuels towards energy efficiency, wind and solar power.”

4. Stop wasting energy and commit to renewables

Stopping valuable energy from being wasted is widely considered as the cheapest and most effective route to cut climate-harming emissions and meet commitments made in the Paris Agreement.

That’s why experts stress the importance of combining renewable energy with major progress in reducing the amount of energy that is wasted through inefficiency.

The EU has targets for both renewable and energy efficiency. These targets are currently up for renewal and campaigners say the higher the targets the greater the benefit. EEB Climate and Energy Policy Officer Roland Joebstl explained the importance of EU laws in these areas to META last month:

“Binding and strong legislation drives more energy efficiency, cuts carbon emissions, creates jobs and makes Europe less dependent on imported fuels. With the climate crisis at our doorstep, and geopolitical tensions rising, energy efficiency is our secret weapon.”

5. Enforce and strengthen EU protections on air quality

Coal is a dirty fuel. The EU has rules to ensure clean air, but limits are breached and protections are not properly enforced across the continent.

According to the European Commission, air quality limits are breached in 130 cities in 23 of the EU’s 28 member states.

Making sure the rules are respected would add additional pressure on national governments to ensure they move away from the most polluting fuels, according to EEB Air Quality Policy Officer Margherita Tolotto, who says that legal action against the governments is now inevitable given the extent of the breaches.

The European Commission has already threatened nine coal-burning countries with further legal action, a move Tolotto welcomes:

“Making sure that national governments are held accountable when they’re breaking EU limits is one way to ensure they take action to speed up the inevitable transition away from dirty coal and towards cleaner, greener fuels.”

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This article takes inspiration from a more detailed position paper ‘Five EU Actions to Take Europe Beyond Coal‘, published in November 2017 by five health, environment and climate groups that work together as part of the Europe Beyond Coal campaign.